Redefining Access and Success

24 public college systems develop new way of counting enrollments and completion rates -- which show they have long way to go to close achievement gaps for minority and needy students.
December 4, 2009

College and university leaders are regularly criticized for making too little information available or presenting only the data that show them in the best light.

No such statement can be made about the leaders of 24 public college systems that on Thursday -- as part of a two-year-old initiative aimed at boosting college completion and closing racial and socioeconomic gaps in enrollment and graduation -- released extensive data about their performance on those fronts.

The data collected by Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, as part of the Access to Success initiative, represent a breakthrough of sorts, in that they suggest a path to improving on the existing federal graduation rate and other data that are widely acknowledged to be inadequate (that's the polite term). By including part-time students and those who transfer in and out of a system's member institutions, they nearly double the number of students covered by the existing federal graduation rate measure.

And by attaching to the systems' data an indicator of their students' low-income status -- by tagging those who are eligible to receive Pell Grants -- the Access to Success data make it possible, for the first time, to gauge how successful the college systems are at enrolling and graduating low-income students.

Because of those changes, the picture provided by the data is, as Chancellor Charles Reed of the California State University System said during a news conference about the initiative Thursday, "much more realistic" than what has previously been available.

The more realistic picture is not necessarily a pretty one, though. While each college system in the Education Trust initiative is assessed by comparing data on their students with those of their states' overall populations -- the individual systems' reports can be found here -- the report also examines them at the national level. And given that the 24 systems enroll 40 percent of the nation's four-year students and 20 percent of all undergraduates, the data provide a clear -- and in many ways "scary," said Kati Haycock, Education Trust's president -- picture of a country where low-income and minority students badly lag their peers in college enrollment and completion.

Those students enroll in and graduate from four-year programs at disproportionately lower rates than do other high school graduates in their respective states, and while low-income and minority students are overrepresented at two-year institutions compared to their proportions among high school graduates, they are underrepresented among students who finish two-year programs because so few transfer or earn a credential or degree.

The data show that "there is a lot of work ahead for these institutions," said Haycock. But while she and her group are often known as tough critics of educational leaders at both the secondary and postsecondary level, Haycock was effusive in praising the leaders of the 24 college systems for voluntarily making these data public, committing their institutions to improving the figures -- and not abandoning the effort despite serious budget travails in most states. (In fact, the number of participating systems has grown from 19 when it was announced two years ago to 24 now, and two -- the University System of Ohio and the University of Wisconsin System -- joined just last summer, well after the economy had deteriorated.

"It's a pretty big deal that this many systems that educate this large a fraction of America's undergraduates are willing to commit themselves to this set of goals, and willing to give the data over to the likes of us," she said in an interview. "And to take it on at a time when most are facing what can only be described as draconian budget cuts is daunting."

Ahead of the Pack

The Access to Success initiative was announced two years ago, in November 2007, well before President Obama, spurred by leading foundations, laid out his goal of restoring the United States to the top of the list of countries in the proportion of their citizens with a postsecondary education.

The point made by Access to Success, and its leaders and members, is that the country can't get there unless colleges and universities do better with low-income and minority students, whose share of the country's population is growing by the day, and who have historically been underrepresented -- and sometimes ill-served -- in higher education.

Some higher education leaders frame the issue -- as the Obama administration largely does -- as an economic matter. In Louisiana, said Sally Clausen, commissioner of higher education there, the white population is expected to grow at a 4-6 percent rate over the next several years, while the number of low-income and minority residents in the state will rise by 70 percent. "If all racial and ethnic groups, and people of low income, had the same educational attainment of other populations here, if all were equally entering and succeeding in higher education, the personal income of Louisiana's population would be $10 billion higher," she said. So the state cannot afford not to achieve Access to Success's goal.

The issue is one of civil rights, too, said William E. (Brit) Kirwin, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, another Access to Success participant. (See full list of participating states at the bottom of the article.)

"A college education has become the passport to a meaningful job and a high quality of life," Kirwin said. "The current impact of poverty on the ability and opportunity to get a college degree is just devastating, and if this initiative isn't successful, we'll be relegating a large fraction of the population to a permanent state of poverty. That's not what our country stands for."

The first big challenge that Education Trust and the system heads' group faced after setting the goal of cutting the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in half was in defining, precisely, what those gaps are. The federal graduation rate and the data from which it is derived, which come from the IPEDS, are widely acknowledged to be flawed, most notably because they count only full-time, first-time freshmen at a time when they represent a shrinking fraction of students. "It was pretty clear" to leaders of the initiative that "IPEDS and the data they typically report for that weren't sufficient," said Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at Education Trust.

So they set about deciding what information they would need to collect to give a more accurate sense of how the institutions were faring, especially with low-income and minority students. The release of the baseline data Thursday represented two years of work in agreeing on definitions (what is a transfer student? how to define "low-income student"?), building the database, and collecting information from the systems.

(Some limitations remain, Engle acknowledged: While the "access" data cover all students who enrolled over the course of a year, the "success" numbers, for now, deal only with those students who enroll in the fall, and whether they graduated within six years, because some systems didn't have the broader information retroactively.)

Education Trust officials make clear that the point of the data collection (and what will be occasional publication of the information as it is updated) is to give each system a baseline from which to measure its own progress -- not to compare systems to one another.

So the Access to Success metric for "access," for instance, compares the proportion of one college system's freshman students who are Pell-eligible against the proportion of that state's high school graduates who are from low-income families, and identifies the gap.

Nationally, pulling together data from all the systems, the gap is 11 percent, with 30 percent of students at four-year institutions in the 24 systems being Pell eligible, compared to 41 percent of high school students in the states who are from low-income backgrounds. Similar gaps exist for minority students among both freshman and transfer students, as seen in the table below:

Enrollment Gaps for Low-Income and Minority Students

  % of Low-Income College Students % of Low-Income High School Graduates Gap for Low-Income Students % of Underrepresented Minority Students in College % Underrepresented Minorities, High School Graduates Gap for Underrepresented Minority Students
Four-Year Freshmen 30% 41% 11 points 29% 36% 7 points
Four-Year Transfers 32 37 5 points 31 38 7 points
Two-Year Freshmen 45 41 -4 points 29 28 -1 points

As is evident in the table, first-year students at two-year institutions are actually more likely to be minority and low-income students than one would anticipate based on their representation among high school students. That suggests that community colleges are serving their historical role as an "open door" to higher education, said Engle. But that promise fades when considering the data on students' success once at the institutions, said Haycock.

The data collected through Access to Success show that just 32 percent of all freshmen who enter community colleges transfer to a four-year institution or receive an associate degree or certificate within four years. And while low-income students perform at that same rate, underrepresented minority students fare worse -- just 24 percent do so.

"That doesn't exactly make you feel good about how things are going, especially with the current infatuation with community colleges" in federal policy, said Haycock.

The four-year "success" numbers are only somewhat better, according to the Access to Success data. Fifty-three percent of all freshmen in the 24 systems earned bachelor's degrees within six years, compared to 44 percent of underrepresented minority students and 45 percent of low-income students. Excluding low-income and minority students, the rate for other students was 57 percent.

The final Access to Success metric -- "access+success" -- aims to compare the systems' college graduation rates with the high school graduation rates in their states. Nationally, 26 percent of the students who graduated from the 24 systems within six years were Pell-eligible, while 41 percent of their states' 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates were from low income backgrounds, a 15 percent gap. Twenty-two percent of the four-year colleges' graduates were members of minority groups, meanwhile, compared to 35 percent of high school graduates, for a 13 percent gap.

As system leaders looked at their own performances, they saw positive as well as worrying signs. California State University, whose outreach efforts to low-income and minority students have been praised and copied, continues to enroll significantly smaller proportions of students from those groups than from other backgrounds, Reed acknowledged. But he said he was heartened by the fact that 84 percent of the university's transfer students come from the California Community Colleges, and that 66 percent of them graduate within six years.

What's Next

Now that they've published their baseline data, the systems -- and Access to Success's leaders -- know what they have to shoot at. The systems are at varying stages of figuring out their strategies for closing their achievement gaps, with Maryland and some campuses in the University of Louisiana System having already developed their plans, and some others doing so just now.

David Carter, who heads the Connecticut State University System, said its campuses had already seen significant progress from its "Building a Bridge" program, which, by improving reading and math readiness in local high schools, has sharply reduced the proportion of students who need developmental courses in those subjects when they get to the system's campuses.

As the individual systems are working on their plans, Education Trust and the system heads' organization are bringing in experts on such things as course redesign (an approach used heavily in Maryland) and project "delivery" (based on the work of Michael Barber in Britain) and helping them share their successes (and failures) with one another to better achieve their goals.

While the down economy could impair what the systems have to spend on these efforts, it also could propel them to be more creative, said Haycock.

"The challenge for these leaders is how to lean into this crisis and use it," she said, "as opposed to walking away from it."


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